Monday, May 31, 2010

Vesak and a trip Up Country

With Vesak providing a nice 4 day holiday and Colombo likely to be busy as a result we decided on a trip "up country" to the high country tea estates for some R & R.

Vesak is a celebration of the birth, enlightenment and death of Buddha. A tidy human being, he did all important things on the same date so providing convenience to followers. The celebration is all about lights which are strung up everywhere with delightfully dodgy cables securing them and powering the globes.

This year Colombo was blessed with rain so the paper lanterns were covered in plastic bags to protect them and the surging electricity. This ensured fewer sparks and black-outs but resulted in "shrink - packing" of many of the lanterns as they heated up.

The idea of the laterns is said to have come from Emperor Ashoka's time when he introduced parades to celebrate the life of Buddha. Perhaps it is time for a little diversion about Ashoka. He was born around 304 BC the son of the Mauryan Emperor which at the time ruled much of India. Originally called Chandrashok, pretty much Ashok the Cruel, he had an exemplary life of a soldier, brutally leading his father's army to crush opposition. When he became Emperor himself in 269 BC he was no less savage in his prosecution of wars until his final war with the Kalingan kingdom. Here it is said he became sickend by the slaughter and declared;
What have I done? If this is a victory, what's a defeat then? Is this a victory or a defeat? Is this justice or injustice? Is it gallantry or a rout? Is it valor to kill innocent children and women? Do I do it to widen the empire and for prosperity or to destroy the other's kingdom and splendor? One has lost her husband, someone else a father, someone a child, someone an unborn infant.... What's this debris of the corpses? Are these marks of victory or defeat? Are these vultures, crows, eagles the messengers of death or evil?
With this declaration came a conversion from his Vedic traditions to Buddhism. Like many converts he was zealous in his introduction of Buddhism across the entire Empire. In particular he had the interesting habit of ordering stone pillars to be erected inscribed with his edicts. They remain scattered across India.

He also built Stupas, 84,000 is estimated, and sent Monks throughout the world to spread the word, including to Sri Lanka. No doubt he felt his Kharma would be slightly skewed against him given his early enthusiasm for death. To overcome this according to Wikipedia;
Even the unnecessary slaughter or mutilation of people was immediately abolished. Everyone became protected by the king's law against sport hunting and branding.

That does seem a tad extreme but he had a lot to atone for. So he now invented lovely parades to promote Buddhism: Vesak. The Ven. Dr. M. Dhammajothi says; In [Ashoka's] fourteenth Rock Edict, he mentioned about a processions conducted by him, which was very illuminated and fascinating to the masses, because images of gods, in their celestial cars with heavenly sights were exhibited in it. So for 2500 years they have been a feature of Buddhist celebrations.
So on the full moon in May/June the Buddhist world lights up. This year the celebrations in Sri Lanka were more enthusiastically embraced since it was the first following the end of the war.

Since this is a very special Buddhist festival for the week of Vesak the sale of meat and alcohol is theoretically limited. While the Government decrees business makes decisions on different objectives. Many shops do observe the ban but some don't . Of course prohibition generates business opportunities and amid the observances Toddy sellers, ganja touts and heroin peddlars are out and about. The Island reported;

Kalutara police arrested three young men on Vesak Day for drinking in public. They were having a ball in the garden of one of their friends (scarcely public). It was replete with all kinds of savouries and suddenly the police pounced on them (the savouries?), took them to the station and locked them up. The following day when they were sober (and no doubt needing their savouries) the OIC told them to visit the Sacred Bo-Tree and make religious observances.

There is no report of the where the savouries finally ended up, but certainly in custody somewhere. The same day the police also captured a man "loitering at a bus stop" carrying a kilo of ganja and had to deal with a "mother, 82, cast out on to the street by son and daugther-in-law". It was a busy day of peace and love.

So against this backdrop we headed off to Nuwara Eliya. Nuwara Eliya is pretty close to the centre of Sri Lanka's widest point. The town is about 2000 metres above sea-level but where we stayed, Kandapola (14 kms away), it was 6685 feet above sea-level. This is the Tea Factory, a converted factory, now a hotel.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Colombo Flood Photos

Where rivers and roads meet ... Of course the serious issue here is what is underneath all that water? Often drain covers are dislodged and people can quickly disappear not to mention rubbish glass and all sorts of other things!

In a country where rain is the norm and floods part of everyday life a motorbike is a mixed blessing!

Kids off to school despite the flooding. Many found their school buildings in no better condition but not much stops education here!

Just another day; day 6 actually of rain, pre monsoon.

The Galle school bus charges on regardless of the river .

Colombo Floods

Sri Lanka is just about to enter the South West monsoon after a period euphemistically called the pre-monsoon or inter-monsoon. In other words when it’s not monsoon it’s pre or inter monsoon. Perhaps this is because in Sri Lanka there are two monsoonal periods, the southwest and northeast; the first in May – August and the second November – February.

Now if you add this up you’ll see that there’s only a couple of months between each monsoon! So it seems a little strange that the Bureau of Meteorology advises inter-monsoon seasons

“...began with heavy thunderstorms and mini cyclones reported from many parts of the country causing floods in some areas and destruction from mini cyclones. Evening thundershowers and strong winds were quiet (I personally doubt the probability of ‘quiet’ thunderstorms but they are ‘quite’ likely) common during the inter-monsoon period.”

Now that sounds pretty much like a “lesser” monsoon to me but the Bureau tells us that the

“... special features of the inter-monsoon period are that there is no consistent wind flow and thunder accompanied by heavy rains with showers take place mostly in the evenings.”

Dr. B.R.S.B.Basnayake (Sri Lankans are always blessed with lots of initials) of the Centre for Climate Change Studies adds

"Sea breezes have a greater effect during the inter-monsoon period. The rain clouds form in the hilly areas and also create thunder and lightning. The clouds form around 10 or 11 a.m. and in areas like Nuwara Eliya (hill country) afternoon showers could be experienced. In the evening the clouds shift towards the coastal areas of the western and south-western belt between 4 and 5 p.m," he said.

  • And lightning does create havoc! On average about 50 Sri Lankans die from lightning strike and several hundred are injured. While this is appalling it’s not because Sri Lanka is particularly dangerous – it’s a result of the way people earn livings. Farmers in open paddy and fishermen on fishing poles (these are poles sunk into the sand a few hundred metres off shore where fishermen sit and fish beyond the breakers) in open ocean are obvious targets. Sometimes it’s not such risky behaviour that attracts God’s wrath;

    Lightning strikes Army rehearsal in view of commemoration
    (Lanka-e-News, May 21, 2010, 9.45AM) One the 17th May, a sudden lightning struck a group of Army officers of the Defense division who were present for the rehearsal in view of the forthcoming first anniversary war victory celebrations at the Galle Face green.Of those injured, three have been admitted to the Army Hospital while another had been admitted to the Colombo General Hospital for treatment, reports say.On the 17th, when the group of Army officers assembled at the Gall Face Green for rehearsal in preparation for the celebration, a sudden downpour forced them to stop the rehearsal. The victims of the lightning had been in a group at one spot.
    Major General Prasad Samarasinghe answering inquiries regarding this episode said, the victims were in a container parked on the marine drive along with the Army vehicle which brought them for the rehearsal. Due to the severe lightning the victims were subjected to a shock and received injuries.The anniversary celebrations of the war victory was suspended due to the torrential rains, and will be held next week, the Major General added.

    The ongoing concern about lightning has lead the Government to issue guidelines on avoiding strikes:


    · Keep away from any connectivity with water. Avoid bathing, cloths washing, dish washing etc.
    · Wipe and dry up your body as quickly as possible.
    · Avoid wearing wet cloths.
    · Try to be inside a properly enclosed building.
    · If at home, the most secured position is lying on the bed not touching any walls. Restrict your body expand only to the rubber mattress.
    · Avoid being closer to windows, doors, car porches, cloth lines, metal fences, metal shelters, transformers, switch boards and telephones.
    · Avoid concrete walls and floors as it may have metal bars inside.
    · Move away from groups of people.
    · Avoid leveled outdoor open spaces. Cease all outdoor activities.
    · Avoid being on top or near hill tops, roof tops and tower tops.
    · Avoid being in or near water swimming pools, rivers, streams or beach.
    · Never use any phones mobile or land. Disconnect the phone wires.
    · Do not use or be near the refrigerator.
    · Disconnect TV antenna wire and place it outside through a window.
    · Avoid using computer or other electric / electronic appliances.
    · Disconnect all coded electrical connections. Stop battery charging.
    · Ensure that the earth wire resistance does not exceed 10ohm/meters.
    · Take pets inside the building. Leave their metal chains outside.
    · Avoid using umbrellas and other objects with metallic components.
    · Avoid riding bikes, motor bikes, horses and open roof vehicles
    · Switch off car stereos. Close the shutters and doors when driving during lightening. As much as possible, do not touch metal parts. Avoid driving in leveled open spaces. Park in basements at all possible circumstances.
    · Avoid taking shelter under tall trees. Squat down to lower your height.
    · In the night lightening times, consider disconnecting main power from the MCB and try to depend on candle light during the danger period.
    · If the time gap between the lightening flash AND the thunderbolt is less than 15 seconds, you are in the danger zone. If you can hear the thunder you are in the striking distance. The lightening can strike as far as 16 kms (10miles) away from the raining zone.

(Data Courtesy National Disaster Management Center)

Based on this advice (assuming you are concerned about being struck by a electrical discharge rather than skin colour) the best solution is to do absolutely nothing but lie in bed, completely dry on a rubber mattress (and not among a crowd) and avoid “expanding” yourself as much as possible.

Apparently many people do not heed this simple optimisation of life during thunderstorms. Sri Lanka’s death toll from flood and lightning attest to that but it seems peculiar that these lessons haven’t been learnt over countless generations.

This year’s pre-monsoon has been severe; 500,000 people have been displaced and around 30 killed in the storms and floods. The surprise this generated in the community is of itself surprising.

A quick look over the past years identifies 120,000 people displaced in 2009; 50,000 in 2008; 110,000 in 2007 and so on. While 2010 was larger than most it is still the natural state of events. However “earthslip” warnings were issued by the Disaster Management Centre following the heavy rains and roads in all the major cities were impassable due to massive flooding. In Colombo, long lines of vehicles were seen marooned in the water which at certain points had risen to nearly five feet. Much of this was caused by the inherent dislike of Sri Lankan drivers to wait for anything including high water.

Heavy rains also damaged 50 houses and properties in coastal areas even raising from the dead guests at the Wadduwa-Pothupitiya cemetery. Strong winds also damaged more than 400 acres of banana cultivation. As of 26 May, more than 513,000 people or 118,888 families had been affected, including some 17,039 people who have been forced to move out of their homes with some 1,354 houses have been damaged or destroyed according to the UN.

The Bureau of Meteorology hopefully declared on the same day that the pre-monsoon
period was almost over and the monsoon will start in about 48 hours. Now that’s good news!

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Sri Lankan Police Scene

It's nice to get a feel for a place by looking at what is important through the eyes of law and order. South Asia always has some fascinating stuff produced as Mr Plod does his rounds and finds himself in the pages of newsprint. Sri Lanka is no different to any other part of the region.

Of course the war, and it's conclusion, (if there ever is such a thing as a conclusion to war) remains a constant focus of activity. A handgrenade here, an AK47 there, ammunition in bushes or wells still actract the attention of the constabulary but now of course these things have less lethal implications. Life is becoming more normal, less tense and people can be interested in the other things that happen around them. So setting war remenants aside the police scene is becoming more normal, bizare, interesting!

The New Year (Avurudhu) festivities have just passed and like all festival times there is opportunistic crime. A family, father, mother and teenage son were returning home from the hill country. During their Avurudhu visits to family and friends father was applied with alcholic libations. He was unable to resist the tempation to "heat his liver" and so by mid afternoon was constantly under fire from his unhappy wife and clearly needed a nap. They stopped in a village to rest, all happily snoozing in the car on the side of the road.

However once revived they found mother's handbag, cash, phone and jewelery gone! They rushed to the police station and lodged a complaint. However the best they got was a promise to "look into" the matter and a dressing down by a senior officer who declared "it such a shame that a father should cut such a pathetic a figure in front of his own son".

But sons are not always the victims. One poor ("46 year old" which I presume is important) mother was forced to complain to police about her "Randy Son". He, at a mere 21 had living with a "cabaret dancer who performs in night clubs" the tearful mother complained to the police. Worse, she was a widow and had started the relationship with this poor, unfortunate bachelor boy. He obviously found the comforts of a young, experienced dancer much to his liking and shifted out from home taking some of his mother's saris for his lover perhaps in a vain attempt at an aedopus complex. The police acted quickly on this occaision and called all parties together in the hope of reuniting an (aged) mother with her (randy) son and getting him to abandon the dancing harlot. To date they have had no sucess - now that's odd!

Some unlucky chaps don't fair so well. A women, with three children in tow, lodged a complaint with the police about here husband. He was a member of a leading band and very popular. He had as a result the demands of his audience and fans, neglected his family and was carrying on with another woman. The woman's husband and lover were both sumonsed to attend the police station. Woman one outlined the sad damage to her happy family while woman two started crying having been mislead by the musician who had claimed to be a bachelor! How strange - this could never happen in the West; a musician lie and root around!

The police officer, taking his duty seriously told the wife to take back her husband and start again, told the mistress to forget the past and begin a moral life and the bandsman to behave himself. The women, quite rightly said "no way, get fucked, fuck-off" or words to that effect. The "crestfallen man with the golden voice" said to the counselling copper I will give up my past ways and "lead the rest of my life singing and strumming my guitar and entertaining people." That is of course until the next fan offers to strum his guitar and let him entertain her!

Surprisingly the police while taking their duty very intently have not proven to effective. A woman whose husband had complain to the police about her running off with another man called them into the station only to find the paramour had since dumped the young lady for someone else. The police sagely advised the woman return to her husband and "lead a good life". She apparently has chosen to heed this suggestion.

And indeed it may not be too hard to find such people as police were shocked recently to find women "loitering" in the town at dusk. On a tip off they managed to arrest "women of easy virtue" who had been hanging around places such as banks, offices and bus stops during the day and shock horror bars and "gambling joints" after dark! Apparently they had come to town to take advantage of the festival celebrations.

On a sadder note a man, a loser in love's war, was found to have died due to an accident. He had strung a length of rope to a tree branch on the bank of a river from which he planned to hang himself for his (ex)lover to see. Unfortunately the fellow was far from a boy scout and the all important knot failed dumping him into the river. Not able to swim the lad drowned. The Coroner rightly declared the deaf to be accidental as he had intended to hang himself but failed and drowned by the concequent accident. A Darwin Award winner for the future I suspect!

Not all things are as well thought through perhaps. An abortion clinic was raided this week after they had received information that illegal abortions were being performed. In itself this is not particularly strange; what was strange was the report "[the police] took a foetus into custody." "We are waiting for the Judicial Medical Officer's report" a police spokesman said " and legal action would be taken thereafter". I imagine the report is not about the foetus's capacity to respond to charges.

But on a happy note parents who reported an "abuction" when their 22 year old daughter eloped with her boyfriend were reunited at a police station after the cops nailed the lovers. While the parents fumed it was discovered the two had been legally married and so there was nothing to be done. The police reported with some satisfaction that despite the family opposition to the affair "knowledge of the marriage" meant everyone left happily.

That's one to the sleuths!

Monday, May 3, 2010

We're here!

As you know we have arrived safe and sound (lost Diplomats often get a bit of newspaper coverage!) and we have settled in to our new home. Unfortunately our stuff hasn't yet arrived (expecting tomorrow - in Sinhala; a week or so) so the house is pretty bare and not yet home.

It's actually smaller than expected too. There are only 5 bedrooms (with ensuite spas), a study, formal lounge and dining rooms, an entertainment room, 2 kitchens, laundry and 2 dressing rooms. Of course the maid and driver both have rooms but we don't count them! The guards also have a room and facilities. There are 2 nice "al frescoe" areas, one on the ground floor and one off our bedroom upstairs. The grounds are small with only undercover parking for 2 cars and room for 2 more in the open. Still and all I think we could be comfortable here even though there isn't a studio for me to work in.

The staff are nice. Agnes is a great cook and insists on providing 3 meals a day 7 days a week - bother! Kumari cleans 5 days a week so we are practicing being much more untidy and dirty to keep her busy. It will be important that visitors prepare themselves for untidiness to help us out! The guards Nilantha and Beddewala don't speak as much English but do their best. Nilantha (a young farm boy) is working hard on my Singhalese and we have some gardening projects underway with more to come once I buy a few dozen more pots.

As yet we don't have a driver but it's really easy to get around (once your used to the traffic and rule idiocincracies) but we will get one. It makes it much easier to enjoy a night out and shopping is simpler without parking concerns. Being the monsoon it's better to be dropped off at the door rather than have to walk!

April is the hot month so temps have been in the low to mid 30's. Next month is the wettest with the monsoon at it's peak, so that'll be fun! The house has a few leaks, a few wiring issues and the odd plumbing situation (only hot water on the top floor) as well as some wonky A/C remotes but we'll cope.

A nice white cat is obviously planning to move in which is fine as long as she doesn't go after my birds. I've got some parrots and a baby Crow coming shortly and Nilantha is very keen for me to make a Pidgeon House and install 10 white pidgeons. It seems he likes pidgeons a lot! I plan to teach the crow to talk (which apparently can be done) but even if it doesn't wont I look cool with a crow sitting on my shoulder! Sonya isn't so sure and remains sceptical - sometimes she doesn't demonstrate a lot of imagination.

I don't have a job yet which is probably good since I have so much to do! Even though my painting equipments have not yet become present in the docks, I have the book of Delhi experiences to complete and some new projects here. Naturally one on our Sri Lankan adventures, a photographic work on Tuk Tuks (you know 3 wheeler taxis) and a more serious exploration of Arrack - history and tasting notes etc. You can see why we need a driver!

Sonya's working hard of course coming to grips with the new role and country etc so it's 7.30 to 6.00 at the moment. She's off to Delhi for a meeting over a few days next week and I'll tag along so we can catch up with "people" which will be great.

So now the adventure begins!